Uncertain Justice

Was Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega really a drug trafficker? Or is it possible he was set up by the U.S. government? Try asking a few dozen people who should know.

But Blandón's version was discredited by investigators. The photograph with Castro was taken at a different, purely ceremonial event. The DEA agent in charge of Panama operations, James Bramble, told colleagues he had no reason to believe Noriega even knew about construction of the lab. Further investigation proved that another member of the Panamanian military, Col. Julian Melo, had received the bribe and that Noriega's high command had thrown Melo out of the army as a result. Nonetheless the prosecution team flew Melo to Miami during Noriega's trial and tried to pressure him into testifying to Blandon's version of the story. He refused.

Until Blandon began talking, the Justice Department had no witness, only unconfirmed rumors about Noriega and drug trafficking. "Prior to Blandon, had you asked people with access, 'Did you think Noriega was involved with drug trafficking?' none of the people would have said yes," said Elliott Abrams in a telephone interview shortly after my lunch with Armando.

Abrams, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to lying to Congress about illegal funding of the Nicaraguan contras, said he couldn't remember the specific charges against Noriega, but he remained adamant about Blandon's importance to the case. "I think the difference was Blandon," he said. "He came forward."

But Abrams did not recall that Blandon had been discredited by both the prosecution and defense teams during Noriega's trial. Originally a prosecution witness, Blandon caused a furor when he leaked copies of audiotapes he said lead prosecutor Michael "Pat" Sullivan had given him to translate. Those tapes consisted of wiretapped phone conversations between Noriega and his attorneys in which they discussed defense strategies. Blandon surreptitiously copied the tapes, which he then indiscreetly circulated within the Panamanian government and turned over to a CNN reporter. CNN broadcast the tapes, despite a gag order from Judge Hoeveler. In the days that followed, the U.S. Attorney's Office threatened to indict Blandon for stealing the tapes, and the former consul tried to protect himself by offering to provide information to Noreiga's lawyers about prosecution misconduct.

But Armando knew precisely what role Blandon played: He too was a member of the conspiracy, meeting as often as he could with Noriega enemies or talking with them by phone. "I don't know if the drug charges were true or not," Armando said over lunch, referring to Blandon's original testimony before the Miami grand jury. "But it was quite effective."

By this time, Armando and I were finishing our lunch. We paid the tab, put on our coats and scarves, and headed back into the winter wind. I asked Armando if he was concerned about the ethics of fabricating a case based on innuendo: "Do you have any information at all about whether Noriega really did these things?"

"No, not at all," Armando replied. "But that wasn't the point. I thought it served a higher good -- to get him out any way we could. He was no saint. He was bad for Panama."

Standing with his back to the wind as we waited for a traffic signal, he paused for a moment. "The thing that still gets me is that I was able to do this.... One individual from a tiny little country ... can influence, change, really control the policy of the greatest nation in history," he said. "It's a sobering, a frightening thought."

I asked him if he felt guilty about helping to provoke an invasion.
"Well, look," he answered, "we set the thing in motion, and maybe it did get out of control a bit, but we never intended them to invade Panama. We never wanted that. It was a terrible thing.

"And while you may not go along with this," he continued, "I was shocked at how absolutely easy it is to manipulate the news media. It was so simple, so elementary! It doesn't reflect well on your craft. You may say that it was lies. But it wasn't that. It was willingness on their part to believe. It was convenient not to question."

For the time he lasted on the prosecution's side, Blandon was an influential witness. His loss forced the prosecutors to look elsewhere to bolster their case. And some of the characters they turned up were truly unsavory.

For example, a major story I wrote for Newsday at the time involved a plea bargain made with Carlos Lehder Rivas, the most prominent Colombian cocaine trafficker ever imprisoned in the United States. In exchange for his testimony against Noriega, he was allowed to transfer from the maximum-security Marion prison in Illinois to a lower-security jail with a new identity. He was also given hope of changing his sentence of life without parole.

Other issues had also begun to surface in news stories about the trial, though Judge Hoeveler refused to allow their introduction into the proceedings. First came new details about the full extent of Noriega's own cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration in its fight against the Colombian cartels. Finally, and much more sinister, came leaks about connections between drug traffickers -- the very witnesses being granted suspended or reduced sentences in exchange for testimony against him -- and their work flying supplies to U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contras.

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